ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
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The ABCs of Engineering

- By Linda Creighton

A number of innovative programs are underway to get kids excited about engineering, and they are just beginning to provide models that might be adopted by others.

There's an old analogy that veteran educators use when talking about how kids learn: You could teach kids to play baseball by waiting until they're old enough to drill them repeatedly on the separate skills of catching, fielding, batting, and strategic team play. Instead, there is T-ball and Little League, where tiny, eager children are sent onto a field with a mitt, bat, and ball to run wildly around, unable to catch, hit or even run the bases in proper order. And guess what? They love the game. And they learn it.

Children love Legos, wooden blocks, go-carts, and tree houses. Yet very few of them grow up to be engineers. Is it time for engineering to take a look at the baseball model for its K-12 education?

The nation's shortage of engineers is not news. More than a million engineering jobs are up for grabs, even with the recent economic slowdown, according to the Information Technology Association of America.

What is news is that even a decade or so after many engineering institutions established outreach programs for bright high school students, it has not produced more engineers in training. Less than 15 percent of high school graduates have enough math and science to pursue scientific/technical degrees in college, and almost half who begin engineering courses drop out in the first year. Less than 2 percent of U.S. high school graduates go on to earn engineering degrees, and five years after graduation, 80 percent of those are working in some other field.

A large number of educators say improving undergraduate education isn't enough, summer programs aren't enough, career days aren't enough. It's time, they say, to travel further down the educational food chain to engage K-12 engineering education in a more aggressive and substantive way.

The question is: Where to start, and how? "These are very large, complex systems when we talk about K-12 education," says Norman Fortenberry, the acting director of undergraduate education at the National Science Foundation and a mechanical engineer by training. "You can't charge boldly forth without doing the requisite homework."

The campaign to bolster K-12 engineering education is just beginning to provide models that might be adapted and adopted by individual school districts to produce more engineers and make our society more technology-literate. Many of the models for reform are so new that it is too early to tell how successfully they can be applied elsewhere. But there are several approaches that are emerging as real contenders.

Top-Down Approach

Massachusetts fired the shot heard ‘round the engineering world in 2001 when it became the first state in the nation to require engineering instruction in every grade of its public schools. It was the first time that a new discipline had been introduced into the state curriculum in 100 years.

Two years later, Massachusetts remains the only state to have mandated engineering education, with the most far-reaching and comprehensive programs in the country.

"Everybody's watching us," says Tufts engineering school dean Ioannis Miaoulis, the relentless and much-admired champion of the effort.

The genius of Miaoulis' approach was to target the curriculum, develop the standards and the methods of change, and then lobby the state to adopt the proposals. He got together with the largest state organization of industrial education teachers and convinced them to transform themselves into engineering teachers to upgrade their status and career opportunities. Brad George, a former shop teacher now tech/engineering teacher at Hale School in Stow, Mass., says it's been a win-win situation: "We've integrated math, science, social studies—and made it real for these kids."

Martha Cyr, a leader in the creation of the new engineering framework, has been director of the Tufts Center for Educational Outreach for six years, the major supporter of the state's initiative. A member of the university's mechanical engineering faculty, Cyr says Tufts supports teachers with professional development and grad students in classrooms, creates applied activities that correlate to subjects like math or history, and establishes one-on-one contact with students to generate feedback for what's working.

The key to success, says Cyr, is the relationship with the teachers. "The greatest percentage of our work is in direct support of the teachers, who can be intimidated by the prospect of teaching engineering material." Professional development classes help, Cyr says, but "much of it depends on the approach you use with the teacher. It's that interpersonal communication helping them understand how they can do this material in their classroom."

That makes choosing the right grad students critical. Eight Tufts graduate student Fellows work with 13 classroom teachers 16 hours each week. Mutual respect is mandatory, says Cyr. "It is incredibly important to ensure that Fellows provide appropriate content direction without insulting partner educators," Cyr pointed out in a study presented to an ASEE conference.

The mandatory approach is an enormous advantage in encouraging school districts to reach for excellence, but it also presents big challenges. Coordinating and communicating with so many local school districts is a major undertaking. "Now that we know what to do, how do we get it to the thousands of teachers out there?" says Cyr. Developing online resources, working with the State Department of Education, and partnering with other institutions all help, she says. It takes work and money.

Cyr's Tufts program gets space but not funding from the university, relying instead on support from industry and 23 different grants. Without long-term funding, long-term planning can be difficult.

And changing the sometimes negative climate in public schools can be a battle, Cyr says. "You get one or two teachers excited and confident, and when they go back to their school, everyone looks at them like they've got three heads," she laments. "Sometimes they get almost railroaded back into what they used to do."

Gauging the success of Massachusetts's experiment may get easier when, for the first time, state assessment tests will include engineering/technology questions for 5th grade and 8th grade. "If the districts want to perform well on the science exam, 25 percent of it is technology/engineering standards,'' says Cyr. "The results will be watched closely by other school districts and states.''

As Miaoulis pointed out, the eyes of the world are upon them, for inspiration and for lessons learned. They are the pioneers, and, like the bravest, they do it—well, just by doing it.

Franchise Model

While Massachusetts forged a statewide program mandated by state education guidelines, a program based in Texas opted for an entrepreneurial approach bankrolled by private industry that provides a turn-key package for schools to buy. It's called the Infinity Project and has grown in just three years from 13 schools in Texas to nearly 60 schools in 16 states stretching from Hawaii to Connecticut.

Texas, second only to California for its reliance on technology-based jobs, has a lot of companies in the same boat as Texas Instruments, competing for scarce engineering school grads. It was a logical step to look to K-12 as a long-term business plan. In 2001, the CEO of Texas Instruments identified education as its top philanthropic priority. It took a big-thinking, high-energy whiz like Geoffrey Orsak to put things together and come up with the Infinity Project.

"We have done the opposite thing from Massachusetts," says Orsak, associate dean of Southern Methodist University's School of Engineering and director of the Infinity Project. "We wanted to build a program that is so valuable that people will actually want it; we're not going to have to actually force them to do it."

Initially backed by an $800,000 federal grant to SMU's Institute for Engineering Education, Orsak teamed up with Torrence Robinson of Texas Instruments, and embarked on an independent assessment of Texas's public and private schools to determine what communities, parents and schools wanted and were able to supply. What he found was that time-stressed teachers and administrators wanted engineering without the hassle.

"To reach as many kids as possible, we wanted to find a way to get in a very, very systematic way that wouldn't require a school system or school to accept a tremendous burden,'' says Orsak.

Orsak and TI assembled a crack team of university engineering faculty and nationally recognized K-12 science and math teachers. Both groups were used for content and curriculum, but Orsak knew the teaching was best left to the professionals: the K-12 teachers.

"The teachers know what they do and they do it better than anyone else. They know how to reach 15-year-old kids, but they don't have knowledge of the content," Orsak explains. "The experts know the content and how to shape it, but they don't know how to message it for the teenager."

A kit seemed the best option. The package provides everything a school needs—teacher preparation and development, required technology, and a network of support for teachers and students.

Educators at the local level "want to know that someone has thought through everything with all the details worked out,'' Orsak says. "We've established a complete solution for schools so that all the school has to say is: ‘We want it.'"

But it's not free. "We originally thought we'd fund the whole thing," Orsak says. "But when the school got a program that was free, they didn't take it as seriously. The principal and teacher paid no cost for failure. So we dropped "free" as a model and started charging." Grants are now available where cost is a barrier. Requiring schools to make their own investment in the program may also help ensure rigorous assessment of its effectiveness, a key step in making the case for including engineering in the curriculum.

Targeting high schoolers who have completed Algebra II and one science course, the one-year program emphasizes digital signal processing, one of the key technologies of the Internet age. The kit and its 700-page curriculum feature multimedia hardware and software for computers and experiments detailed in video, images and audio.

Schools must be approved to participate in the program, showing a committed administration, willing math and science instructors, energetic students, and laboratory supplies and space. Once a school signs on, graduate students from SMU School of Engineering assist instructors and mentor students.

Orsak says the bottleneck is training enough teachers who may not have had enough science/math background. "That's tough," he says. "That's a national issue."

Reliance on private funding means that tough economic times for companies is hard on the Infinity Project. If Infinity meets its goal of being in every high school in Texas by 2005, state bureaucracies may have to assume a larger responsibility for funding. "That will be the model in the long run," he says.

Orsak is going national with a new program to franchise and license the Infinity Project to universities across the country. Since most students study within 100 miles of home, Orsak envisions a perfect framework to build connections between schools, teachers, and local colleges of engineering. Starting this year, 17 universities across the country will be Infinity franchise sites. "In the same way that McDonald's holds meetings for people interested in being franchise owners, we should be able to admit larger numbers of schools next year," Orsak says.

And if McDonald's is the business model, the Infinity Project might one day have a dream slogan: Billions served.

Hub-and-Spoke Method

Jackie Sullivan envies Massachusetts. The dynamic founding co-director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program at Colorado College of Engineering says she wishes her state had mandated K-12 engineering courses. "I'll be working hard to achieve that," she declares.

A proponent for greater diversity in engineering schools, Sullivan began working in outreach programs 10 years ago. "We can't effect change at the college level," she says. "We've got to go much younger." How much younger? "Third grade at the latest," Sullivan says emphatically. "Kids are born engineers. They love hands-on learning, things that go boom, things that are slimy. Engineering is the perfect vehicle for making science and math relate to things in a kid's world."

Not one to shy away from outsized goals, Sullivan would like to see a complete change in the way that engineering education is taught and perceived. The only way to do that, she says, is to impress upon children the role engineers and engineering play in society. She places the failure to do so squarely at engineering educators' door. "Kids know what doctors do. They know what lawyers do. Why don't they know what engineers do?"

To that end, the Boulder campus of the ITL Lab, a 34,000-square-foot facility dedicated in 1997, is really a hub for a K-16 wheel of learning, drawing inspiration from Confucius' credo that if "I do—I understand."

Widely admired for its innovations in undergraduate engineering learning, ITL has expanded to offer professional development courses for teachers of K-12. More than 8,000 K-12 students visit the lab each year to take part in classes like the electrical engineering "Shock Your Socks Off" geared to excite minds young and old.

Two years after its beginning, a NSF grant enabled the program to put engineering grad students into 60 K-12 classrooms throughout the year. This year, ITL will partner with 60 teachers from 7 schools in the area. In 1998, the Success Institute was added to the initiative, a four-year residential camp program for middle schoolers, aimed at increasing engineering enrollment of students of color.

The only way to get at the problem, Sullivan believes, is to start with the early building blocks, a point that was driven home when she taught a Success Institute's class of high-achiever 9th graders. When they could not average five numbers, she wondered "My Goodness, how far down do we have to go?"

Weakness in math and science for students can often be traced back to a wobbly foundation in those areas for teachers, she says. "We find elementary teachers love this classroom augmentation because they don't consider themselves strong in math and science."

But the demands on teachers can derail the best efforts to push ahead in K-12, Sullivan says, and enthusiasm for additional commitments can wane. Next year the ITL program will cut summer teacher workshops to two days from the current five. Better pay and more respect for teachers is a critical K-12 component that Sullivan would like to see addressed.

Sullivan concedes that assessing the progress of programs like Colorado's can be problematic. When a DOE grant enabled them to develop a 3rd through 5th grade engineering curricula at three schools, ITL wanted to use control vs. test classrooms and perform content testing after a year. That turned out to be a hard sell. Resistance to the idea of "control" groups of students—and reluctance to take on more testing—resulted in one of the partner schools canceling their involvement in the program this year.

The amount of red tape any program must contend with in its dealings with public schools is daunting, slowing down the changes Sullivan would like to see yesterday. What she is doing about it is constantly creating new alliances and approaches to meld the best of what is out there with what could be. To that end, she contacted Tufts and several other institutions, and together, they are developing a Web-based searchable digital library of K-12 curriculum. It is called, and in September was awarded a grant by the NSF. Searching by curriculum standards or specific science/math skills and grade level, Sullivan envisions an invaluable tool for K-12 educators.

With every innovation or venture into new territory, Sullivan adds a reality check. "Three years from now, we're going to have the first high school graduates of our week long immersion program in the summer. It's wonderful if they have a better attitude about engineering. But who cares? Are they enrolling in engineering? That's the goal."

It's a long-term investment, with at least 10 years before results are known, says Sullivan. "You can't go in and effect great change in a short time." And what if her initiatives fail to enroll every student in engineering? "Have we failed?" she asks. " No, not if you look at the education of a technologically literate society as part of the mission of engineering colleges, which I think it is."

Lessons Learned

Common lessons are emerging from these and many other efforts aimed at K-12 engineering education.

Seasoned educators agree that any K-12 initiative must be built for the long haul upon the cooperation of parents, students, teachers, administrators, industry, and elected officials. "We have to come together as equals and as partners," says Fortenberry, of the NSF. "The principal danger is that we will have very excited, enthusiastic, but ill-informed people attempting to go into K-12 schools with the ‘solution.' This is not a situation where higher ed can fix K-12. If it's going to have any hope of success, it's got to be a collaborative effort."

Fortenberry says there is no one-size-fits-all solution. "We do not have a national system of K-12 in this country," he points out. "The long tradition of local control and local options means we need programs tailored to individual districts of states."

Gerhard Salinger, a program director in the division of elementary, secondary and informal education at the National Science Foundation, says very few of the programs that come to him for review reflect an understanding of how students learn engineering. "I think a number of them are essentially taking what they do in college and doing outreach without a framework for doing it," he says. Hands-on K-12 activities "stuffed into science or math standards" do nothing to teach engineering concepts and process, he says. He singles out for praise programs such as one at Illinois State under the direction of Franz Loepp or Janet Coladner's Georgia Tech program that pays attention to the way children learn and focus on constructing an entire culture of design and engineering principles.

For now, perhaps, the biggest lesson about K-12 engineering education may be that the path is uncertain.


Linda Creighton is a freelance writer based in Arlington, VA.
She can be reached at